20 years of silence(National Post January 23, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Jan. 28, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada released its judgment in the case of R. vs. Morgentaler, which struck down the abortion provision in the Criminal Code. As a result, Canada became the only Western nation with no abortion law --a situation that persists to this day. This week, National Post writers will be looking at the legacy of R. vs. Morgentaler. In today's second instalment, Barbara Kay argues that most Canadians believe abortion should be restricted in some cases --but have been silenced by pro-choice zealots.

In the new movie Juno, a pregnant teen declines the easy abortion route, bravely choosing adoptive parents for her baby. In another recent movie, Knocked Up, a young woman decides to keep the baby she conceived with a one-night stand. The plots are otherwise dissimilar, but both implicitly present as sympathetic those girls and women who don't abort their accidental babies.

Of course, these are American movies. No Hollywood producer would dare risk his movie's profits by offending the huge pro-life bloc of the movie-going population. But at least the thorny subject of abortion can be addressed in American culture. Roe vs. Wade, the infamous American Supreme Court decision that permitted abortion on the spurious grounds of a woman's "right to privacy," has been a vigorously debated public issue for more than 30 years.

Whether one sees him as a great humanitarian (that is certainly how he sees himself ) or a monster -- in The Beaver magazine's poll of the "worst Canadian," he ranked "worse" than Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka -- one of Henry Morgentaler's achievements cannot be gainsaid: He effectively eliminated abortion as an issue for public policy debate in Canada.

Since the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decision vindicating Morgentaler and decriminalizing all manner of abortion, a political chill descends whenever the subject is broached. In the last federal election, Paul Martin exploited the fear of an abortion ban to demonize Stephen Harper, who pointedly distanced himself from any challenge to the existing non-law. And when Conservative MP Rob Merrifield suggested pregnant girls might benefit from pre-abortion counselling, feminists tore a strip off him, urging women not to vote Conservative on that basis alone. Other politicians took the hint and kept shtumm.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease on abortion, it seems, and not the 68% of Canadians who in a 2004 poll said they wanted legal protection for fetuses at some point in their development. Most Canadians are uncomfortable with the complete ban on abortion (including cases of rape, incest and severe fetal deficit) advocated by ardent pro-lifers, and as well with the complete lack of constraints on abortion we now "enjoy."

Canadians should be informed that the Morgentaler decision produced disturbing outcomes. But there is no public forum to discuss them. Here are two of the many resulting media orphans:

1) Young women today are more careless about becoming pregnant, indicating an increasing psychological desensitization to the creation of new life. For example, in 1988, 16% of pregnancies in Quebec, Canada's most abortion-friendly province, resulted in abortion. Today, 30% do. Girls are using abortion -- tax-funded and easily available -- as an alternative form of birth control. No morally aspirational society should feel complacent abetting this trend.

2) A less predictable outcome (in Canada, at any rate) was, with access to early and improved ultrasound technology, the use of abortion for gender selection -- a popular strategy amongst cultural groups that privilege male children. If even the women's rights-obsessed Morgentaler balks here -- "It seems a bit awkward to eliminate a fetus on the basis of gender," he said in an interview -- there can't be many who would support it, or at least not on the basis of women's rights. Yet it remains perfectly legal.

Abortion is like medicare: Both need a policy change, but for no logical reason an old template has evolved into such a sacred national cow that their respective ideological guardians are able to drown out reasonable voices. When suggestions are put forward for reform of either, all we hear is a panicky "two-tier medicine!" or "a woman's right to choose!" as if reform of the one will lead to all poor cancer victims being left to die at home, and reform of the other will result in raped women driven to back-alley abortionists. Such fears are absurd on both fronts.

The 20-year anniversary of any transformative social decision is a good moment for a dispassionate review of the decision's consequences. A majority of Canadians have been ready for some time to have that discussion with a view to a balanced law that respects the rights of women, but at the same time acknowledges the human fetus as something more than a mass of insensate tissue to be nurtured or discarded for any reason whatsoever.